The Wild Mongolian countryside...the main reason to come out and explore the steppe. I got together with Alex, Jaakko and Laura and we arranged to get out there on our own because taking tours sucks. We stocked up on food at a local market, same one I used when prepping for Terelj, and I also went to the "Black Market" to pick up a tent and sleeping bag and some dishes for the countryside. I made sure to empty out my pockets of valuables before going as it seems everyone gets robbed there eventually. We first escaped UB via train to the next biggest town called Erdenet, around thirteen hours away. We arrived in the morning, wandered the desolate town trying to figure things out, stopped and ate a meal better fit for farm animals, and then we eventually found transport onward, in the direction of the great Mongolian north filled with fertile pastures and green hills, an ideal grazing area for livestock. The ride by minibus to Moron was another ten or so hours, and everyone was seriously squished, to the point that all of our knees created a sort of flesh and bone table for which these two young
kids were using to roll around for hours on end. I was getting seriously pissed off, the little girl was a damn whiner and although quite politically incorrect, I wanted nothing more than to chuck her out the window as we went along. The worst thing was that my Ipod was dead and I couldn't even use that to shield me from the incessant crying. The dad was quite nice however, a heavyset man who spoke great English and helped us out with a few things. The vehicle pulled into Moron at around two in the AM and we took a taxi to a close Ger camp for the night.
In the morning we all realized how much of a shithole Moron was, even compared to Erdenet, and we resolved to get the hell out of there asap. The town seemed to be comprised of mainly shanty areas, and dust covered everything. There was an old tourist information sign but it looked like it hadn't been maintained in about fifteen years, at least. We bought a few more items here and then went to the local car transport area. The day grew very hot. We argued that they were
overcharging us to get to Khovsgol because we were foreigners (a sad but true fact throughout most of Asia) and they blatantly admitted to doing so. Instead we hitchhiked on some soviet van for a fairer price and were in Katgal by the evening. Katgal was a small and derelict town, more resembling a close to abandoned place of wild western lore. The lake was close by to the town. We checked into MS guesthouse, with very friendly staff and information. We organized our horse trek through them, and were surprised at how much cheaper it would end up being, always a bonus for a backpacker. That night we relaxed in our ger, cooked some food, and got ready for the journey.
The next day we were off...at the crack of noon. We had two guides with us, a local married couple who were seasoned horse riders. Tsola was the woman, in her early thirties, and very nice with passable English skills. I don't remember the husbands name, and he couldn't really speak a word of English, but he seemed like a damn good rider. There were eight horses in our pack, including two pack horses. We departed from
Katgal and headed west. For the first two hours we went at a slow pace while we all got to learn our horses. Mongolian horses are quite different from western horses. They are extremely resilient and intelligent, they are much smaller, they don't like affection and the Mongolians don't give them any, and they are never named. But these are the beasts that, several hundred years ago, helped conquer half of the known world. I named my horse Tenac, cuz I always wanted to name something Tenac. He was quite small and had a very long, blond tail. Eventually we began to trot, canter, and then full on gallop, which was a rush. Riding and controlling a living creature is like nothing else really. That day we went through these hills and eventually got a full on view of Khovsgol Lake, in all it's fine glory. We stopped in a ger for some milk tea and friendly small talk with the locals. The lake water was clean enough to drink but man was that lake icy cold! I took a quick swim within and I lost feeling in my feet and my nuts retreated into me! We camped lakeside that
night, set up camp, cut wood, cooked and enjoyed the fire into the night. A main point of this trip was the copious amounts of tea we consumed throughout. It definitely lifted the spirits.
Day two we began to pack up and realized that our guides axe was missing. We continued on beside the lake. Tenac seemed to have a lot more energy. We all galloped more freely in the early part of the journey, and got quite ahead of the guides, who had to go at a slower pace because of the pack horses. Clouds were coming in fast, big and black and ominous. Without warning the sky spilled itself and we began to get instantly soaked. Alex, Jaakko and Laura took off at a gallop, but my horse was halfway up a hill and I had to get down slower, they were gone by the time I did. My horse got lazy and began some half-assed trot as the thunder and lightning thrashed the sky around me. I managed to get near a ger and quickly tied up my horse before crashing in! Inside were like eight kids and a man and a woman. They immediately gave
me a cup of tea and gestured to me to sit down while I stripped some soaking clothes to be dried next to the fire. The kids laughed and looked at me as though I was an alien. The rain crashed around outside and I hoped my horse was still tied up out there. The woman gave me a really nice cotton shirt to wear in the meantime and I rode out the storm while drying off slightly. Eventually once the rain was ebbing I decided to take a chance and head out to find the others. I tried to give back the shirt that I thought they had only loaned me but they insisted I keep it on and go with it. It's quite rare to experience such an amazing level of hospitality and kindness. What a turnaround from the city folk to those of the countryside.
I blazed across the land, and quickly found my companions, who had taken shelter in some wood house. I tied my horse near theirs and it began to rain again to we retreated into that home once more. When it rains here, it really pours! When we did finally get out,
it didn't take long to see one of our guides, Tsola, approaching. They had obviously taken the brunt of the storm and the news wasn't good. We discovered that one of the pack horses had flipped out and in doing so, some baggage snapped off and was trampled. We lost half our food supply, Alex' 250$ camera lens was MIA, and most of our stuff was drenched, half our cooking pots were smashed. Some sun was coming out so we took what we could and layed it out to dry. At least when this Mongolian sun came out things would warm up fast. We discussed how our male guide had been hitting the sauce all morning and should have been more careful. Nevertheless the guides were full of sorrow for the incident.
Soon after we met some retired nuclear physicist German old man, vacationing along the lake with his wife. Kind of an unlikely person to meet out here I thought to myself. This guys was set up for everything, own vehicle, translator, driver, camera and film equipment, satellite phone and GPS, topographic maps, you name it and he had it. We had to get scrambling, find some dry
wood underneath massive stumps (plus we had no axe), and salvage cooking stuff. We lost the rest of that day and had to camp out by the lake again. Ironically we made our best dinner to date that night, maybe cuz we were fueled by rage! Or not... After eating we joined the German couple and they're huge fire while the driver played a variety of cool instruments.
We were hoping for a better start to day three and it looked like it would be. We had to ration food a lot more since we had lost so much but at least we figured we might still have enough. I was getting to know Tenac better know, and it seemed like after riding with energy for the first hour or two he'd begin to fall back and get lazy. Didn't help that my Russian saddle sucked for trotting. Alex' horse seemed to be fueld by roids. It wanted nothing more than to run...constantly. It would run up a hill and then run down a hill then keep running, through rocks, it would even run when it couldn't see where it was going, amazingly enough. Jaakko, by my estimation, had
the best all around horse, it had decent control, didn't seem to get tired and would begin galloping at the slightest heel kick. Finally Laura's horse was the black card, never interested in running, or even walking fast. Often we felt sorry for her bad luck and would wait up for her. It even made me feel better when Tenac was acting like a donkey and would reluctantly trot even while my straps and beating stick came crashing down on him. I got very liberal with it's use as time progressed I tell you.
The scenery that day was inspiring. We climbed the hills, and kept on climbing them until we could see almost the entire lake from the other side. The horses got tired, and it was a reprieve when they were able to go down the other side. We continued on for a while until we found a valley with a small stream running through and decided to camp there for the night. The meadows were full of bright flowers, and the horses enjoyed eating them. Tsola wanted to make some Mongolian cooking for all of us, and we all happily agreed. She made a delicious rice
dish with dried Yak meat she had procured, and we all thought that yeah that's got to be the best meal yet. The timing was perfect because within minutes of finishing the skies opened up, typical of the unpredictable Mongolian weather patterns, and we all scrambled to our respective tents to escape to apocalypse. Laura was sharing my tent and the damn thing didn't even have a decent rain cover, I honestly did not believe it would survive the howling winds that were being increased tenfold by the wind tunnel effect of the valley. The guides and Alex and Jaakko's respective tents were being reinforced with extra wooden pegs during the storm and I places heavy rocks on all four peg straps to keep the damn thing from blowing away. I was clenching my tent top shut as the wind was bringing all the rain in that the small rain cover was proving useless to stop. For the first fifteen minutes my arms were holding it tight and then I laid on my back and let my legs do the work which was a much better idea. Laura decided it was the perfect time to read a book, but I
can't blame her since there wasn't much else to do, and besides if she could continue reading that book then things were still looking good for the tent. After a while the rains began to cease, to my relief, and I looked out to see all the tents had survived. We had brought in some wood with us before it poured and restarted the fire. That night however, it began to rain once more, at least with less wind, and continued throughout the night. I didn't sleep very much.
Day four we continued on, heading south west, the threat of instant rain at the back of our minds. It was VERY hot by midday however and we were roasting. We came upon dry river beds and for hours we traveled them. Tenac hated walking them and none of these horses had hooves either. My horse was lazy today, annoyingly so, but I resolved to just deal with it. It took us some time to find a fitting camp spot that had some water and wood and eventually we did find a spot with a very small stream and wood in the hills. I went up and grabbed a massive
load of good burning stuff. I noticed though that everywhere the wood had touched me I was beginning to hive. I figure it was a reaction with that type of bark I was handing or maybe I was developing some full on contact dermatitis with wood in general? I really hoped not. That night we made pasta with some tomato paste, leftover onions and carrots, and some canned beef that was more likely to be from the soviet era than not. Amazingly it turned out to be our best dinner to date! That night we made more fire and although we viewed rain clouds in the distance, for the first time since we began our expedition, it remained dry.
Day five. Into the Trees, past meadow grounds, and further away from the dried out river beds. The direction; south east. The terrain was improving and we were enjoying the riding way more now. Tenac was galloping along with Alex and Jaakko's horses (Sparky and Dangerous), and Laura's horse continued lumbering along unhappily. Maybe her horse was older than the others, who really knows...not all horses are created equal are they? My horse began an impressive gallop and then I
felt something wrong. Very wrong. My body was beginning to shift more and more to the right, while Tenac was picking up speed. I was pulling the reigns back but no longer had the leverage to make it count. I was hanging off his side, squeezing me thighs as hard as possible to stay on, in futility. An instant later one of the saddle straps snapped and I went flying down, landing hard on my side. Tenac's hind leg came crashing down and I managed to move my own leg out of it's path, and just avoided having it crushed. Too close, but it's a great thing I can land like a champ! It helped to have fallen on grassland. I tell you, after that happened, I had almost as much adrenaline pumping through me as when I went skydiving, strangely enough. Tenac continued running off, and I checked myself and realized I was ok, and then waved to the others that I was alright. The male guide caught Tenac and somehow repaired my shitty saddle. They never asked me if I was fine or not, but that's not the Mongolian way. After you fall down, you got to get
back on the horse and carry on. I was galloping again within minutes of the event but I learnt the valuable lesson of checking the straps after gallops. Most of the time that wouldn't be a problem, as Tenac was generally a lazy bastard.
We were in the forests now and it was beautiful. We stopped at a ger and were treated to homemade bread, yak butter, yak yogurt, and of course, tea. I was thinking how these locals had the best backyard in the world. We had rode along for six hours at that point and the guides were looking to settle down but everyone wanted to carry on as we were so close to Katgal. With heavy reluctance the guides finally agreed to keep going. I could have roughed out another night, but we were low on food and there wasn't much water around, so I didn't care either way. Another three hours we rode. My saddle blistered my ass, and my leg muscles were locked up with overuse. The end didn't seem to come, and then we all heard the impending sound of thunder and the lighting lacerated the skies. We had gone for a good
bit without rain and it was gonna suck to have it happen now, right at the end. We were tired but it paled to the exhaustion or horses must have been braving. Light rain began to fall and we broke through the hillside to triumphantly see Katgal. We were almost there and then the rain began to fall with greater reprisal. Thankfully we all made it back before a downpour. Back at MS guesthouse I could hardly walk right but we had a nice home cooked meal, loads of tea, and a warm ger with a fireplace in the middle to pass out in.
The following day was a right off. Everyone was still fatigued, but we did try to drink some beer in an attempt to celebrate Finnish midsummer, although that quickly went to shit since most of us were still weary and of course it had to rain that evening, yet again. We watched lots of Trailer Park Boys on my Ipod in the ger and common room. We also met Gaby up here, he had recently arrived and was prepping for a major two week hike into the wilderness. We gave him ample warning of the
swiftly changing weather conditions and lack of much water in the hills.
We had so thoroughly enjoyed our horse trip that the following day we were back at it again, just for a day journey, this time to the eastern side of the lake. We used Tsola and her horses again since they did a great job during the previous journey. I requested a different horse for this, so I can't say I was exactly pleased when Tenac was there waiting for me. Didn't last long though, as he was truly useless on this day and so eventually I switched horses with Tsola's younger sister, who was also accompanying us. This horse was bigger, stronger, faster, overall better and I was able to get some speed out of it without draining my entire chi to do so. The terrain included bridges, hilltops, trees, and wet marshes. The best part though was when we got back to Katgal and traveled through the desolate city streets by horseback, and stopped at a few shops and got food. It felt like living in a faded shred of time. Very few places must exist were this is the norm rather than the exception.
The adventure proved enormously rewarding, and made visiting Mongolia totally worth it.
The next day we were off, leaving behind Katgal and heading back to that shithole Moron but luckily this time only for an hour as we grabbed a twenty hour public bus back to urban jungle of UB. My hands had some weird rash on them, I had been holding a barked beating stick the day before, could have been it. Allergies are garbage (at least it's what I think it was). Although we waited forever to leave and got stuck in mud coming up a mountain and stuff, we had enough energy to survive the trip, hell at least my Ipod was charged up this time...
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